Point of View Basics

When I first started writing, one of the hardest things for me to understand were the different points of view. It took me awhile to figure them out, but I think I finally have a grip. I figured that if I was confused, probably some of you are/were, too, so I decided to post a basic overview of the different viewpoints. Let me remind all of you that the stellar examples are copyrighted, in case anyone considers stealing my genius. Editors, agents: I'm available for representation.

First Person: Tells the story from one person’s point of view, using the pronoun I. I, whoever that may be, is the narrator.
“Would you please focus? We’re supposed to be studying here.” I rolled my eyes. I couldn't believe I got stuck with James as a research partner.
“Fine, fine,” he muttered, picking up his book.
Jeez, working with him was like being partnered with a toddler. Thank God he was back on track.
“Hey, look!” he said as the door whooshed open. “It’s Jan. JAN!”
“SHHHHH!” I hissed. “You’re in a library, idiot!”


Second Person: Implied narrator; someone is saying 'you', but we don't necessarily know who it is. The reader is the main character. The story utilizes the pronoun “you”.
"Would you please get to work?" you ask.
James rolls his eyes and retrieves his encyclopedia. You hate being the heavy in this situation, but the report is due tomorrow and James hasn’t done doodly. You turn back to your paper, writing a total of ten words before James is distracted yet again.
“Jan! HEY, JAN!”
You wince and shove him. “This is a library, idiot! Be quiet!”

Third Person: Implied narrator; someone is saying 'he' or 'she'. For me, this was where it got complicated until I realized that the third person viewpoint runs along a sliding scale. The scale starts at the limited side, where a story is told through the eyes/ears/brain of only one character. As you slide along the scale, you encounter writing that includes the thoughts/opinions of more than one character. The far end of the scale is the omniscient end, where literally anyone/anything/any event in the world can be commented upon.

Third Person (limited end of the scale): Written inside one character's head. No other character’s thoughts are accessible—only the things observable by the main character.
Rita resisted the urge to scream. “James. Would you PLEASE focus on your research? This paper is due tomorrow.”
James rolled his eyes, but opened his book. She thought about telling him to stop being such a child, but didn't want to interrupt him now that he was working. She’d read about three sentences before he was off track again.
“Hey, look! It’s Jan!” He stood up, waving his arms.
Now Rita was the one rolling her eyes.

Third Person (omniscient end of the scale): Written from the viewpoint of several different characters.
Rita leaned over and forced herself to speak calmly. “James, I hate to be the adult in this situation, but you have to get back to work. We’ve only got an hour left.”
James rolled his eyes; the only reason he'd finagled Rita as a partner was because she was so smart. Yet here she was, expecting him to actually participate. He pulled his book closer, eyes listlessly scanning the page until the library door opened.
“Hey, it’s Jan. JAN!” he yelled.
“SHHHH!” Rita whispered. “You’re in the library, idiot!”


True Omniscient: Narrated from outside the scene. Narrator has unlimited access to the characters’ thoughts and actions, past and present, and to events that have nothing to do with the viewpoint characters and are outside their realm of experience.
The library was a haven of academic serenity. A sophomore accessed the internet, looking for information on Prohibition. Behind glass doors, a study group rounded a table and clarified the finer points of a chemistry conundrum. A lanky boy lounged on a sofa, reading a motorcycle magazine. The picture of quiet industry, all.
Except for the couple at Table Fourteen.
“Listen,” Rita hissed, tired of researching, tired of babysitting her partner, and tired of doing all the work herself. “This paper’s due tomorrow and you haven’t done a blessed thing to help. Either gather your scattered thoughts and write something useful, or just go home and take a zero.”
James rolled his eyes. Rita was the proverbial “brain”: overachieving and bossy. He hated when she talked to him like he was stupid, but he couldn’t afford a zero on this assignment. He pulled the encyclopedia to him and tried to read, but it was so boring. When the library door swung open, he looked up.
“Hey, look, it’s Jan.” He waved his arms. “JAN!”
Rita jerked him back into the seat—how had she gotten saddled with such an incompetent? “Shut up, idiot! You’re not supposed to yell in the library!”


So there you have it. I hope it's right. If it's not, please feel free to correct me, since I'm still figuring it all out. Granted, identifying the different viewpoints is only the first step; next, you've got to figure out when to use each one. But that's another post for another day.

14 comments:

Angela said...

Awesome rundown, Miz Becca. You are in fine form!

Natalie said...

I'm loving this blog! It's like a free writing course. Thanks for all your wisdom. :-)

Authoress said...

Very good!

Now tell me how you feel about the seeming insistence that we all stay inside our protagonist's head and never venture out!

That's the mantra, yet I am constantly (so it seems) reading books that jump around from head to head.

What do you think?

Becca said...

I'm glad you're finding it useful, Natalie!

Connie Clark said...

Wow, that sheds some light. I have been confused on some of the third person delima. This really helped me out. You guys rock!

Connie Clark said...

Wow, that sheds some light. I have been confused on some of the third person delima. This really helped me out. You guys rock!

Becca said...

Authoress, if a book is written in third person limited, the viewpoint should stick with one character for a scene's entirety, because that's the essence of third person limited. But if someone is writing in true omniscient, I'm fairly certain they can hop all over because the narrator has access to every character's thoughts and emotions.

The problem seems to be when the story starts out in third person, then switches to omni, then switches back to limited third, etc. I think that editors and agents are vocal about this being a red flag because it demonstrates a lack of technique. They have so many submissions to read; when they get one from an unknown author that's head-hopping all over the place, it's a sign that maybe the author hasn't mastered the pov technique, and possibly there will be other "beginner" issues as well.

Granted, once you're a successful author, you can do pretty much whatever you want, which explains why we see head-hopping all over the bookstore. Until we 'arrive', us peons have to stick to the guidelines.

One person's opinion :).

Becca said...

Yay, Connie! I'm glad you found us.

Connie Clark said...

I just love this and would like to have permission to post your blog site onto my blog?

Angela said...

By all means, feel free to link us to your blog! :-)

Connie Clark said...

You are there! Thanks!

Authoress said...

Thanks for your response. :)

I recently read a book that was firmly entrenched in third person limited until about 2/3 of the way through, when all of a sudden we were in a completely different person's head. I found it jarring, to say the least! And this was a recent publication, not a centuries-old masterpiece.

Donna said...

Maybe it'd be a good idea to dedicate a post to distinguishing head hopping from POV changes. I know it was an area that was really murky for me until fairly recently.

Usually a proper segue is needed when switching POVs from character to character and if it's done, say from paragraph to paragraph, the reader can start to feel like Sybil and cause them to draw out of the work. From my understanding, very few authors can pull off abrupt POV changes smoothly enough to not be noticable.

Also from my understanding, a third person limited doesn't necessarily have to remain behind the eyes of one character throughout but it should remain in third person limited throughout. One of my WIPs is third limited but I fully intend on having a couple chapters from the POVs of different characters just so I'm not following one character around like a puppy dog. It's a sly way to get some omniscience in yet remain in the same POV. JK Rowling did that in, I believe, all 7 HP books. For the most part it was from Harry's POV but there were scene switches where we get insight into events that Harry doesn't know what's going on. Personally, it was a nice break from Harry's sometimes PIA POV.

But yeah, getting inside multiple characters heads within one chapter is usually frowned upon. And I agree that there is a push for the author to remain inside the head of one character, which is where my confusion between omniscient and head hopping lay. It's since cleared up and I've since realized that I prefer limited (I like a challenge) but the want to hop into another head is still there.

Becca said...

Right. Third person limited should remain in the head of one character at a time. It's permissible, via section or chapter breaks, to change viewpoint characters, but if we are moving in and out of different peoples' heads within a scene, it ceases to be third person limited.

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